In 2012, the Buffalo Bills had a multi-million-dollar defensive line with all the talent in the world, but middling results to show for it. A front four consisting of ends Mark Anderson and Mario Williams and tackles Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams should be able to plug up rushing gaps and terrorize quarterbacks on a fairly regular basis. But last year's Bills ranked 27th in overall defense in Football Outsiders' efficiency metrics. They also wound up below the middle of the pack when it came to stopping the run and rushing the passer, and whether you were reading metrics or watching tape, it was a pretty disappointing disconnect between talent and performance.
Sometimes, that disconnect has to do with scheme. In an attempt to set things right, the Bills replaced defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt with Mike Pettine, who had that same role with the New York Jets. Under Rex Ryan (save all the jokes; Ryan is a brilliant defensive mind), Pettine ran all kinds of fronts, stunts, and exotic calls, and it would appear that he's already getting under the skin of at least one NFL quarterback in his new home.
After the Bills beat the Minnesota Vikings, 20-16, in Friday's preseason contest, Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder told the media that he wasn't quite sure what Pettine was throwing at him out there.
"They’re a very exotic defense, a very good defense," Ponder said. "They had a lot of different looks. We’re still in pre-season mode, so we didn’t really do any scheming or anything against them. There’s a lot of things we’re going to be able to learn from the tape, and I think next week in San Francisco is going to be the big barometer of where we are as a team. I think the starters will play the first half and a little bit into the second half. So we’ll learn from this one and move on to the next one."
Before he moves on to the next one, Ponder and his teammates might want to examine how often they were physically overwhelmed against Buffalo's defense. On Minnesota's first play from scrimmage, Ponder -- who completed five passes in 12 attempts for 53 yards -- was sacked by former Indianapolis Colts draft bust Jerry Hughes. Hughes ran a simple inside counter on left tackle Matt Kalil, and Kalil let him by too easily. Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said after the game that his offense didn't do much to prepare for what Buffalo did, but a guy of Kalil's talents shouldn't need extra film work to deal with an inside counter, either.
Later in that first series, Pettine started to dial up fronts with one down lineman and several defenders at the line of scrimmage with their hands off the ground. These looks (frequently called "Psycho" fronts) make it more difficult for quarterbacks and offensive linemen to determine who's rushing, who's dropping, and where to put one's attention. One play in the Vikings' second series provided a perfect summary of Pettine's effective concepts, and how they affected Ponder's physical limitations.
On third-and-24 from the Buffalo 45-yard line with 8:25 left in the first quarter, Ponder scrambled for 14 yards, and the Vikings had to punt. That's what the play-by-play will tell you, but the tape shows a great deal more.
This happened one play after Ponder threw a errant screen pass in the general direction of right guard Brandon Fusco. Ouch.
To be fair, though, these kinds of defensive packages can fool the best quarterbacks in the NFL. I remember charting a New England Patriots-Dallas Cowboys game in October of 2011 (the Patriots won, 20-16), in which then-defensive coordinator Rob Ryan gave Tom Brady the same kinds of looks. In the first quarter, the Pats ran 12 plays and scored three points, with two sacks and an interception. In the second quarter, Brady's offense ran 20 plays and scored 10 points, with no sacks and no interceptions. What was the difference? In the first quarter, New England didn't run a single no-huddle play. In the second quarter, every possible play that could be no-huddle was just that.
As I noted back then, the difference in Dallas' defense was immediate.
As soon as they realized that Brady was calling the offense and not just the protections from the line, that Cowboys kaleidoscope defense became much less colorful in a hurry. Through the drive that took up the first three minutes of the second quarter and ended in a field goal, you saw two down linemen, [outside linebacker DeMarcus] Ware standing up on the defensive right side, and a nickel base defense. Over and over. The Patriots did another smart thing –- they punctuated the hurry-up stuff with running plays, ensuring that the Cowboys knew they’d have to pay if their quicker adjustments led to any poor run fits or gap integrity mistakes.
Now, of course, the Pats are in the vanguard of NFL teams running no-huddle. So, that's one way to reduce Ponder's confusion at the line -- by forcing defenses away from schematic diversity, offensive coordinators can help their quarterbacks get some momentum rolling.
But in a larger sense, I believe this play speaks to the throws Ponder doesn't believe he can make. Those limitations will probably come home to roost in the regular season, as they did last year. ESPN's Ron Jaworski ranked Ponder 27th in his 2013 QB Countdown, and gave a pretty accurate picture of where Ponder is now.
“Ponder fits the profile so many are now talking about: the athletic movement quarterback who can beat you with his legs. Ponder is an opportunity runner, and he’s shown the ability to burn some of the best defenses in the league.
“Ponder needs to make significant improvements as a pocket passer. Surprisingly, with Adrian Peterson in the backfield, he was not efficient off play-action. Ponder also had a tendency to be a beat late with his throws. At this point, he doesn’t see the whole field with clarity and that led to too many throws into the teeth of the coverage.
“And he must execute versus the blitz much better than he did in 2012. You know what statistic really bothered me? Ponder had only 28 completions of 20 yards or more – by far the fewest of any 16-game starter.
“Overall, I like Ponder’s skillset. He has plus arm strength with the ability to make every single throw. The Vikings have now provided Ponder with more weapons on the outside. 2013 is an important season for the third-year quarterback. It’s time to play more consistently from the pocket. If Ponder does that, he could well be in my top 20 next year.”
But if Ponder can't take advantage of the opportunities provided to him by general manager Rick Spielman and offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, he'll stay in Jaws' low 20s. The play illustrated above is an example of Musgrave telling Ponder to go for it -- to air it out and see what happens under adverse conditions.
As the great offensive coach Sid Gillman told Jaworski when the two men worked together in the 1970s, the preseason is the time to make those tougher throws to see just how things will turn out. The Vikings will face those kinds of situations when the games really count, and they'll face a lot more of them if it's clear that Ponder will not take chances on shot plays downfield.
Greg Cosell of NFL Films, who also produces Jaworski's NFL Matchup show on ESPN, once told me that you must partially judge quarterbacks on the throws they seem to know they can't make -- the plays left on the table. I'm sure the Vikings are doing just that in these kind of situations. As for Buffalo's defense? Things are looking pretty bright right now.